Scott Cotenoff // January 17, 2013 15:24
After 25 years of working on the "inside" of nonprofit organizations as an ED, senior leader, and manager, I have recently joined the world of consulting. While I'd never be so bold as to paraphrase a famous athlete who, infamously, "brought his talents" to another place, my experience working with consultants as the organization's staff contact has taught me a few things about how to ensure that consultancy projects produce positive outcomes. These lessons can be summarized by four "Cs"--clarity, commitment, communication, and collaboration.
Developing clarity--of purpose, expectations, and goals for the project--is an important first step for an organization, even before engaging an external consultant. As a senior leader, you may conclude that your organization needs to get smarter about how it pursues growth opportunities, or think that some level of restructuring would benefit your organization, or simply believe that something needs to change in what the organization does without yet knowing what that change should be. While a consultant can help you think through these issues, I've found that it works best when the organization develops some internal clarity about the challenges faced or opportunities available. Being clear in your thinking can help you select an appropriate consultant and can facilitate a more fruitful initial discussion with him/her as you fine tune the project.
Once you have reached some internal conclusions about the outlines of the project, it's critical to be sure that your organization can truly commit to making it happen. Does the leadership team see this project as a priority? Does staff have time to make this project a priority? Will board members be willing and active participants? Are there sufficient financial resources in place, or close at hand, to support the project? A "no" answer to any one of these questions may mean that more internal work needs to be done before launching the project. Keep in mind that a consultant can also help you think through these issues and how to get them to "yes."
A successful project is, at its core, based on a positive and productive relationship between the consultant and the organization's leadership. One of the most significant factors in developing this relationship is clear, consistent, and direct communication. Either verbally or in writing, everyone involved needs to work on keeping lines open and information flowing, whether it's about logistics and meeting schedules, the process for undertaking and completing the project, ideas and recommendations, or anything else related to the work. If you, as the CEO, disagree with how the consultant wants to proceed, tell him/her! Good consultants are really intuitive, but we can't read minds. The last thing you want is to get deep into a project only to learn that there is a disagreement or lack of understanding about what you as the client need, or what your consultant needs, to move it forward successfully.
Finally, projects work best when the nonprofit and consultant collaborate. One of our goals, as consultants, is to help build skills within your organization to think and plan strategically in the future. It's much harder to accomplish this if we are not working in partnership with organizational staff, and if the organization does not see this as a joint venture. The more engaged we are with each other, the more on point we can be in concluding the project to your satisfaction. So, when facing questions about how to best do what you do, keep these four Cs in mind. Clarify your thinking around goals and expectations. Be sure you and your organization are committed to the project. Keep the lines of communication open and information flowing about the content of the work and the relationship with the consultant. And, finally, think of us as partners who want to collaborate with you to move the organization forward in a positive way. With these Cs as the foundation, your consultancy project will have a greater chance of earning an "A" for your organization!